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Latvia and cremation

08-06-2010: This article was written by Irina Lisicina. She made a research about cremation in Latvia for Latvian University.


The qualitative research „Deceased's Cremation in Latvia: Tendencies, Factors and Explanations” was made with the aim to understand why more and more people choose cremation in Latvia as the burial type of the deceased. In the research has been used a variety of qualitative methods to achieve the study objective. Social theory of Ferdinand Tönnies about Gemeinschaft
and Gesellschaft (Society and Community) has been investigated and applied in data analysis.
Research goals were:

  • to provide the cremation process definition and description;

  • to take an insight into the history of cremation;

  • to describe the statistical trends of the cremation; clarify what factors (economic, pragmatic, the psychological, aesthetic, religious, etc.) affect the increase of cremation and to provide the classification of these factors;

  • to find out what factors are most affecting in the Latvian people's choices to be cremated or cremate their relatives.

The research results showed that the rationalization of society and individualization result in the popularization of cremation.

About Cremation in Latvia

As a student of sociology faculty in University of Latvia, in the beginning of 2010 (February - May), I held a research about cremation tendencies in Latvia. The main aim of the research was to understand why more and more people in Latvia have been choosing cremation as the burial type.

In Latvia, the common and traditional way 'to utilize' the deceased bodies is to bury it in the underground: to place the body a few meters under the soil - to inhumate. Starting from 1994, the residents of Latvia have a second option - cremation, because in November 1994, the first and only crematorium till now in Latvia started to work. Riga Crematorium is situated in the capital of Latvia - Riga - in a quiet and green area, near the famous cemeteries (Graveyard; Cemetery of Rainis).

Riga Crematorium started to be built in 1938 during the first independence period of the Latvian Republic, in consequence of the initiative of Fire BurialThe member of this society - lawyer AugustLoeber (1865-1948) started to develop the legislation of cremation in Latvia, but in 1939 he immigrated to Germany. The architect of the Riga Crematorium building was Osvalds Tilmanis (
Osvalds Tīlmaņis) (1900-1980)who was the chief architect of Riga in 1934-1950 and 1956-1958. His project of crematorium won the special contest which was announced.

Despite the fact that the crematorium building started to be built in distant 1938, it was completed in 1994, and starting from 2006 the Riga Crematorium is run by LTD company Centre - Crematorium(
Kremācijas centrs )and in 2007 the building was renovated.

To get the necessary data about cremation tendencies in Latvia, an interview with the representative person of LTD Centre - Crematorium was conducted. The company information shows that 2227 cremations were made in 2008, but the Central Statistics Bureau of Latvian Republic provides information that 31people died in 2008, so it shows that around 7% of death ended with cremation. For example in 1997 - 817 cremations were held, in 2000 - 1127, so the up going popularity of cremation is clearly seen: the cremation is becoming more and more popular in Latvia. The question is why?

In the Lithuanian Republic, which is a neighboring country of Latvia, there is no crematorium, so some residents of this country - around two hundred people each year - who choose to be cremated after death or whose relatives decide so, are cremated in Riga Crematorium.

To find the factors which affect the growing popularity of cremation in Latvia, I have made several interviews with experts in cremation business and the academicians; also respondent's interviews were held. To understand the idea of cremation, to make an historical study of cremation expenditure in Europe's territories, to sketch how cremation is viewed by mass media and to compare the situation of cremation in Latvia to other European countries, I made analysis of the Latvian Republic laws, several mass media publications, previously held researches about cremation in Denmark and the United Kingdom. To explain and understand the data, the social theory of Ferdinand Tönnies was used.

Ferdinand Tönnies published the book "und Gesellschaft" (“and Society”) in 1887, where he used a phenomenological approach to the study of the archetypes of social relations, exploring human nature in the social context and analyzing the long-standing controversy about the meaning of society. He developed his own concept of human society a community of people, who live a common life in a given area. is a "community" - on a larger scale and more difficultly organized human association, which is connected by social institutions, where there is a division of labor, community specialization, economic exchange system, the bureaucratic hierarchy and class stratification.

Tönnies's social theory postulates that the aim of human society's evolution is a shift from "community" to "society", followed by transformation of all the social aspects of life. This process is governed by rationality. The more the role of rationality increases as the norm of the society, the more the particular society has features.

Using Tönnies's theory on the evolution of society and its structure, hypothesis may rise about why the late 19th century Western civilization countries began to legitimize a cremation and in the 20th century it began to spread as one of the main burial types, gradually superseding traditional burial. Based on the theory of Tönnies, it can be concluded that individualism starts to dominate in the society; people are increasingly less interested in the family traditions, usual practices and an emphasis on rational considerations are made in any field of life as well as in the matter of choosing the burial type. The way how the person will be buried stops being a 'family matter' and it is increasingly becoming the 'choice of the individual'. It used to be that the family members were guided by the traditions and community values, but now the individuals base their decisions on rational appraisal and personal convenience. At the same time, we should not forget that Tönnies emphasized on the role of government in the type of society: the government produces rules, norms, laws which become obligatory to obey for members of society. So, once people start to live together, they 'sign the agreement' in figurative sense: they agree to obey some certain rules and laws, but they start to have rights which should be protected. Fortunately or not, but for the human rights people 'pay' with freedom: society members do no longer have all variety of choices, for example, in Latvia, the law gives the member of society two options - cremation or traditional burial type, which should be conducted according to some certain norms, but a person cannot dispose human remains on a tree or cremate deceased on an open fire in the middle of the street. The right to have freedom of choice is obeyed, but variety of options is lost.

When a person explains his choice to be cremated after death, it sometimes is connected with religious grounds: for example, interest in Buddhism etc. - such explanations are manifestation of the individualism, because nowadays people in Latvia are free to be interested in different religious practices. Dominant religions in Latvia, in terms of the quantity of its followers, - Catholic Church, Orthodox Church and The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia do not forbid the cremation practice, although cremation was 'encountered' with unfriendly attitude at first. This phenomenon shows the secularization which issociety's characteristics - the Church conforms the society demands.

Cremation is a product of society. People who choose cremation are mostly affected by rational allegations while they are making their decision, but even such subjective reasons as, for example, 'wanting to become part of Universe by dispersing the ashes' in the end are also manifestation of the society features, because it shows how individualisticsociety is. I cannot judge whether it is positive phenomenon or not, because it is just our reality - we live in society. Whether we like it or not, reality constructs our identity.

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